We’re Not In The Era Of Millennial CFOs Yet

Why a youth movement at the top of the finance department isn't happening yet—and why that's probably a good thing.

Just two short weeks ago, Kraft Heinz executive Paulo Basilio was, at 42 years old, one of the younger CFOs in the Fortune 500. But when the company announced that he would be leaving his position to run US operations, it was his replacement that made headlines. On September 8, the $99 billion company named 29-year old David Knopf its new CFO. The move was far from unprecedented for 3G Capital, the Brazilian private equity firm that owns Kraft Heinz and has become famous for promoting young executives. To the rest of the world, however, the specter of a 30-under-30 listee running the finances of one of the world’s largest firms was shocking. Though Knopf seemed to have the bona fides to justify a mind-boggling career trajectory, the question loomed over the rest of corporate world: were we officially entering the era of the millennial CFO? For as surprising as it might seem in a world of 27-year old unicorn CEOs and rampant ageism at the country's hottest companies, the answer, thus far, seems to be no. Millennials are not yet taking over the CFO position. At least not yet. And while millennial CFOs are surely around the corner, there’s reason to believe the delay might be a good thing.

Finance could use some millennial leaders

To be sure, the millennial assault on the corporate world is already well underway. Across the business landscape, managers have been spending exorbitantly to try to wrap their heads around millennial employees. Concerns about succession planning in particular are driving up the value of so-called “millennial experts,” some of whom command upwards of $20,000 an hour from businesses who struggle to relate to their baffling young workers. For companies with large millennial workforces, such as accounting and retail firms, catering to this demographic has a very real impact on the bottom line. Given the changing environment of corporate finance, it might seem like the CFO’s chair is a prime candidate for disruption by the incoming millennial wave. Finance in all aspects is becoming a highly technical and creative function. This trend favors millennials. "Millennials are a creative generation since they were able to experience connectivity and technology from its infancy,” says millennial consultant Suzan Shedid. “They’re more inclined to be involved in technology-driven finance roles and automate most of the role." A penchant for automation and an openness to new technology is exactly what finance needs in order to shift towards strategic work and away from administrative tasks. The finance function of tomorrow, in other words, will be every bit as digitized as the teams we already associate with tech-friendly millennials. It would make sense if their inevitable C-suite takeover started with the CFO.

CFOs are getting more important

Despite the increasingly digital focus of finance, youth is not the primary movement defining today’s CFO. More pronounced is the growth of the position's influence within the organization. Whereas the CFO’s job once revolved around a largely operational set of responsibilities, the position has turned into one of the most important centers of business strategy in the organization. Its influence touches every aspect of the business. As such, companies are reticent to entrust the job to inexperienced hands. For one thing, candidates need a broad range of experiences to fill the role well. CFOs manage so many diverse functions these days, it’s becoming somewhat obsolete to limit the title to "finance." Chief among their new responsibilities is managing and analyzing organizational data. That means optimizing information flows throughout the org, ensuring that performance KPIs are being hit, and a host of other duties that are closer to data science than to closing the books. In addition to data management, CFOs are in charge of IT (including cybersecurity), navigating ever-unfolding regulations, and even HR. The data explosion has created an urgent demand for digested, actionable business intelligence. It takes a few years to accumulate the diversity of experience that can handle that diversity of roles. There’s also the fact that at many growth-stage companies, CFOs have become the de facto adults in the room. As CEOs have started to come less frequently from business backgrounds than from engineering or “thought leadership,” CFOs have picked up the slack on investor relations and brass-tacks decisionmaking. Maybe that’s why even companies famous for their twentysomething founders, like Facebook and Snap, have gone public under older CFOs—42 and 39, respectively. A CEO can be a sexy, mission-driven young visionary. When it comes to the CFO, breadth of experience and a record of results still win out. Fifty is no one’s idea of old age, of course, but 29 is no one’s idea of experience.

The benefits of a more experienced CFO

There are young CFOs out there, but most of them are either founders, like Box’s Dylan Smith, or financial engineers placed by investors, like Kraft Heinz’s Knopf. In enterprises, the trend is actually the opposite of what you’d expect in a tech-driven world: CFOs are getting older. Since 2012, the average age of CFOs in the Fortune 500 and S&P 500 has increased from 42 to 48. The average age of new CFOs was 51 in 2016, up from 46 a decade earlier. Whether intended or not, older CFOs indicate an encouraging prudence from enterprise boards. At a time when corporations over-incentivize shareholder value and explosive growth, an experienced hand at the till is not only better equipped to take the long view, but to favor fundamentals over flashy maneuvering. CFOs also have more to worry about under today's regulatory regime. “The increasing age of new executives is, in part, a reflection of their new responsibilities, introduced in part by the financial reforms in the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010,” writes Oliver Staley of Quartz. “Among other new regulations, CEOs and CFOs are now personally liable for any wrongdoing by their subordinates, putting a greater premium on experience and judgment.” Furthermore, CFOs tend to be promoted from longer career arcs than your average financial wiz kid has experienced. According to research by SpencerStuart, the three most common stepping stones to CFO are tenures in controllership, divisional finance, and treasury. Being that the top job demands such a strong operational capability, hiring someone with a deep understanding of the institution’s processes, as is found among controllers and mid-level managers, is almost certainly more beneficial than bringing in a young I-banking alum to shake things up.

Millennial CFOs aren't far off

None of this is to say that young finance professionals aren’t capable of solid decisionmaking. Certainly the millennial rush into the C-suite is not far off. As established enterprises seek new avenues of growth, they’ll hire millennial graduates of money-printing tech behemoths like Facebook, Google, and Amazon to fill their executive positions. For now, even the oldest millennials in finance—approximately 37 years old in 2017—will have to watch and learn from their older colleagues for a bit longer. In the interest of stability and wise corporate stewardship, that’s probably a benefit to the entire organization.
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